The Chess Candidates Tournament: Birthplace of World Champions

candidates tournament birthplace of world champions

The chess Candidates Tournament, also called Candidates Matches, is organized by the chess governing body FIDE. The most recent was the COVID-19 interrupted chess Candidates 2021.

What must be remembered is traditionally the role of the chess Candidates Tournament is to select the next challenger for the world chess title.

As you can imagine, this adds extra stress to the event and even today’s super-GMs aren’t immune to the toll stress can take under those circumstances.

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Although it’s only right to give credit to the strong chess players of the past, we must not overlook the quality of top chess grandmasters today. Here is a game from 2013 played between two contestants of the Chess Candidates 2021 tournament.

Wang Hao – Fabiano Caruana, Dortmund GER, 2013, 1-0

How Often Do the Chess Candidates Tournaments Take Place?

From 1950-1992 the tournament took place every three years. Since 2013 this changed to every two years.

Players qualify for a chess Candidates Tournament in odd-numbered years and play in the event at the start of the even-numbered years. Later in the same year, the winner plays the reigning world chess champion in a title match.

Due to COVID-19, the second half of the 2020 Candidates Tournament was completed this year in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

History of the Chess Candidates Tournament

Chess Candidates Tournaments have been held regularly until the split in 1993 when Kasparov and Short broke from FIDE before playing their world chess championship match.

Seven years after the reunification match in 2006, the current system got implemented.

During these seven years, FIDE held a tournament as a world championship match. Magnus Carlsen even chose to boycott the 2012 Candidates Match in protest over the short knockout matches. 

Qualifying for the Chess Candidates Tournament

The number of players in the Candidates Tournament has varied from between eight and fifteen. Although some players get seeded directly into the tournament, most qualified through Interzonal Tournaments.

Interzonal Tournaments are played between the top players of Zonal Tournaments.

FIDE established zones throughout the world and held Zonal Tournaments where the top players of the regions within the zone would meet. One or two players from each Zonal Tournament would qualify for the Interzonal.

The top players from the Interzonal Tournament would qualify for the Candidates Matches. These matches get played on a round-robin basis.

Since 2005, the World Chess Cup has replaced the Interzonal Tournaments.

Players still compete in Zonal tournaments to qualify for the World Chess Cup. Numerous leading players in the world get exempted from the need to be eligible through a Zonal tournament.

Zurich 1953

Although there are many memorable Candidates Tournaments, the Zurich Tournament in 1953 stands out because of the players’ strength.

At the time, the top players in the world took part in this Candidates Match in the hope that they would play a world chess championship match against Mikhail Botvinnik.

Because of the cost of hosting this chess Candidates tournament, the Swiss Chess federation insisted host countries cover the participant’s travel expenses. The first prize was 5000 Swiss francs.

All the contestants in the 1953 chess Candidates Tournament except for Bronstein and Reshevsky brought a second. Along with Bronstein and Reshevsky, thirteen other players were participating.

The other players were:

  • Yuri Averbakh
  • Isaac Boleslavsky
  • Max Euwe
  • Efim Geller
  • Svetozar Gligoric
  • Paul Keres
  • Alexander Kotov
  • Miguel Najdorf
  • Tigran Petrosian
  • Vasily Smyslov
  • Gideon Stahlberg
  • Laszlo Szabo
  • Mark Taimanov

Taimanov and Najdorf Participate in the Chess Candidates Opening Ceremony

mark taimanov
Mark Taimanov

The 1953 chess Candidates Tournament was held in Neuhausen am Rheinfall as well as Zurich.

Mark Taimanov and Miguel Najdorf gave speeches along with FIDE President Folke Rogard at the opening ceremony in Neuhausen am Rheinfall. Taimanov also played piano compositions by Chopin and Tchaikovsky.

Play would begin on August 30 in the Parish Hall, Neuhausen am Rheinfall.

The first eight rounds would be held here, and a local factory pledged a watch to the leader after round seven.

Because Smyslov and Reshevsky tied for the lead after seven rounds, both got a watch.

After the completion of eight rounds play moved to Zurich. The Salon of Music in the House of Parliament would host the remaining rounds.

The 1953 Chess Candidates Tournament Gets Underway

max euwe
Max Euwe

In the first round of this chess Candidates Tournament, former world chess champion Dr. Max Euwe caused a minor sensation when he defeated Kotov despite dealing with a sinus infection.

However, it wasn’t plain sailing for Euwe. Kotov sacrificed the exchange and got a better position but couldn’t find the correct continuation.

Euwe-Kotov, 1953 Candidates Chess Tournament, 1-0

In round three, the game between Euwe and Smyslov drew a large crowd. Euwe was becoming the main attraction in the early rounds.

This time Smyslov played a prepared Grunfeld Defense. Euwe got the better position thanks to an exchange sacrifice but let things slip away with an error on move 28.

From here on, Smyslov displayed exceptional technique to press home his advantage. This great game lasted 58 moves.

In round four, there were four wins to three draws. The first time the number of wins in a round outnumbered the draws.

Boleslavsky, Smyslov, Reshevsky and Najdorf all won their games.

in chess as in life a man is his own most dangerous opponent

In round seven, there were six draws and only one victory. Smyslov defeated Geller to draw level with Reshevsky and the tournament lead.

Reshevsky took back the lead in round eight thanks to his victory over Kotov. Smyslov was enjoying a bye in this round.

Here is another tense struggle between two of the strongest grandmasters in chess today, including the runner-up finisher in the chess Candidates 2021 tournament, MVL.

Boris Gelfand – Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, FIDE Grand Prix Tashkent, Tashkent UZB, 2014, 1/2-1/2

A Little Banter Lightens the Mood

From rounds 9-11 Reshevsky led this chess Candidates Tournament, before being overtaken by Smyslov in round 12. 

In fact, during round eleven, there was an amusing interaction between Boleslavsky and Najdorf. Boleslavsky played the Samisch Variation (5.f3) against the King’s Indian.

When he continued with a line leading to simplifications, Najdorf asked if Boleslavsky was playing for a draw. Boleslavsky responded “No.”

With this in mind Najdorf asked Boleslavsky if he was playing for a win, to which he replied, “Not that either.”

This led to Najdorf asking the only remaining option, “In that case, you are playing to lose?”

Boleslavsky replied, “No, I’m playing simply because I like my position!”

Here is how the game unfolded.

Boleslavsky-Najdorf, 1953 Candidates Chess Tournament, 1/2-1/2

The Chess Candidates Tournament Reaches the Halfway Mark

Smyslov was the only undefeated player at the halfway mark of this Candidates Tournament. Reshevsky and Bronstein were a point behind. 

vasily smyslov 1964
Vasily Smyslov

The players continued to play cautiously in this tense chess Candidates Tournament through the next five rounds. Because there was such a slight difference between them, a loss could drop several positions in the standings.

When the tournament reached round 21, Smyslov and Reshevsky shared the lead. Up until this round, Smyslov remained undefeated. 

Thus, it is no surprise rather than celebrate Kotov’s victory over Smyslov, the headlines proclaimed, “Smyslov Loses!”

Because of Kotov’s victory over Smyslov, four grandmasters had a realistic chance of winning the tournament – Smyslov, Reshevsky, Bronstein, and Keres.

Surprisingly, things started off well for Smyslov in his game against Kotov. However, at this level, you can’t afford to make two errors in a game. 

However, two consecutive errors, in particular, will prove your undoing. There is a good reason people say one error is likely to lead to a second in chess.

Kotov-Smyslov, 1953 Candidates Chess Tournament, 1-0

Smyslov Keeps His Poise After Losing to Kotov

Smyslov and Reshevsky would face off in a critical game in round 25 of this chess Candidates Tournament. Reshevsky was only half a point behind Smyslov.

They were facing off in their second game of the tournament.

The result of this game would, in all likelihood, reveal who would win what many considered to be the greatest chess tournament of all time.

Despite the importance of the game coupled with who his opponent was, Reshevsky played no less than eleven waiting moves! 

Because Reshevsky had such faith in the solidity of his position and his ability to defend it, he chose to sit back and ask Smyslov to find a way through.

there is much that remains secret and unexplored in chess

What made this approach even more surprising was that Smyslov had better development and the bishop pair advantage.

Consequently, these two advantages were enough for Smyslov to find a way through Black’s defenses.

Smyslov began by going a pawn up. This alone wouldn’t have been sufficient for the win, but Reshevsky’s sealed move was not the best.

In the end, Smyslov won the game with a mating attack. As can be seen, the doubled-pawns came in handy.

Smyslov-Reshevsky, 1953 Candidates Chess Tournament, 1-0

Great chess players don’t need material advantages to win games. Smyslov won this game because he could use his lead in development and the bishop pair to win material.

In the following video Ding Liren shows us how a modern chess grandmaster convert a space advantage into a win!

Ding Liren – Levon Aronian, Alekhine Memorial, Paris / St. Petersburg FRA/RUS, 2013, 1-0

Zurich 1953 – A Chess Candidates Tournament Like No Other

This incredibly strong chess Candidates Tournament lasted for almost two months, and every one of the fifteen masters played their part in adding to the intensity. 

Smyslov went on to win arguably the greatest chess tournament of all time. He only lost one of his twenty-eight games and cruised to victory with easy draws in the last five rounds.

Because Smyslov was able to balance attacking play with calmness and poise in defense, he proved himself a worthy champion. 

Bronstein, Keres, and Reshevsky tied for second place. 

Here are the final standings in the 1953 Zurich Candidates Tournament

1953 candidate tournament final standings
1953 Candidates Tournament Final Standings

Interestingly, a playoff between the three was arranged to see who would get seeded into the next chess Candidates Tournament.

Surprisingly Bronstein and Keres declined to play. As a result, this made Reshevsky the automatic qualifier by default, but he chose not to play in it.

The Longest Chess Candidates Tournament – 2020-2021

Zurich 1953 can lay claim to being the strongest of all Candidates Tournaments, but there is no doubt the chess Candidates 2021 tournament is the longest.

As a result of COVID-19, the chess Candidates 2021 was held over two different years.

Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi secured victory in the penultimate round. He finished ahead of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

Hence, Nepomniachtchi will play Magnus Carlsen in Abu Dhabi, UAE, for the World Chess Champion title.

The surprising and sad news from the 2021 Candidates Tournament was Wang Hao announcing his retirement from competitive chess due to health reasons.

In Conclusion

There have been many remarkable achievements in the chess Candidates Tournament throughout history. Bobby Fischer achieved two 6-0 sweeps ahead of his World Chess Championship match with Boris Spassky.

All things considered, every single participant in the 1953 chess Candidates Tournament would have proven a worthy challenger for the title of World Chess Champion.

Chess is a complex game, and for this reason alone, we can expect many memorable moments in future chess Candidates Tournaments.

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